CTA: Poor People Will Register Ventra Cards, Won’t Get Debit Card Hard Sell

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This bus ad promotes Ventra's value protection feature for lost or stolen cards. Photo: John Greenfield

A recent discussion of Ventra, the new fare payment system for the CTA and Pace, with CTA spokesman Brian Steele, has allayed some, if not all, of my concerns about the impact on low-income Chicagoans. The cost of a single-ride ticket will rise from $2.25 to $3. This price hike can be avoided by purchasing a reusable Ventra card for $5, which is refunded as a transit credit when you register the card. However, registering the card requires access to a phone, the Internet, or the CTA headquarters, which might be a barrier for very low-income individuals.

And if you purchase the card just before getting on the train, you need $7.25 in hand to pay for the card and the fare, unless you’re fortunate enough to be at a station with a payphone you can use for calling the toll-free registration number. That’s highly unlikely in a city where public phones are rare as hen’s teeth. It’s possible that some people might instead opt to repeatedly pay the $3 single-ride fare.

The Tribune recently reported that a study conducted for the CTA found that low-income people who buy a Ventra card are unlikely to register it, which would mean missing out on the $5 fare credit, as well as the ability to get a refund if the card is lost or stolen. However, when I asked CTA President Forest Claypool about this at a recent, unrelated press conference, he said the study found no such thing.

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A Ventra farecard machine. Photo: John Kim, Chicago Tribune

Another concern I had was that there’s no way for most people to buy a reusable Ventra card that doesn’t have the option of being activated as a prepaid Debit MasterCard, and the logo is printed on the corner of every card. The debit card has a number of associated user fees, which many low-income people can ill afford. It appeared that the registration process might be used to market the debit card to a captive audience, but Steele argued that’s not the case. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

John Greenfield: I got the information about the internal study, which found low-income people are unlikely to register their Ventra cards, from a Tribune article. If not’s the case, what did the study find?

Brian Steele: You have to read the study, it’s a lengthy study, and somewhere on page 15 or 16 it talks about the assumptions that were made for the study. We had to come up with assumptions to estimate the number of people who may or may not register. We made two assumptions. The worst-case scenario: not a single person registers a Ventra card. Then we made another assumption that, I think it was, 89 percent registered and 11 percent wouldn’t. These are assumptions. They are not saying that 11 percent or ten percent or whatever the number may be will fail to register for the card. We believe, and our education and outreach efforts are designed to help make sure that this occurs, that people will register the Ventra card.

People who buy the single-ride ticket for $3 will be doing so because they choose to use that fare payment option. They have other options that will not cost them anything beyond their initial card purchase.

JG: Except that to purchase a single ride on the CTA you have to have $7.25 in your hand, correct? Because you need to buy the $5 card and then you need to load it with $2.25, so that’s not an insignificant amount of money for a very poor person. They might opt to just spend the $3 at one time, rather than invest that $7.25.

BS: That initial purchase is a one-time purchase, so that one time they have to spend more than they currently do so. When you buy a card, you’re not buying just a blank piece of plastic. You’re obviously buying fare value. The first time you purchase a card for $5 you register it with a quick phone call, or online, or however you choose to do it, and that $5 is applied.

Ventra turnstyle touchpad
Ventra turnstyle touchpad. Photo: Ryanbytes

JG: And then the thing is, you need to use a telephone, the Internet or show up in person to the CTA headquarters in order to register. It seems like those three things might be significant barriers to very low-income people.

BS: We don’t think they’re going to be significant barriers for a couple of reasons. The most main reason is, starting in a couple of weeks through the end of the year, we’ll be giving away tens of thousands of free Ventra cards in those communities. So we believe that on our initial push to get those out there, a lot of low-income people will come and take advantage that.

Again, we don’t think it’s going to be a barrier because people are, obviously, purchasing transit already. A lot of people are purchasing round-trip rides, not just single rides. Certainly people do purchase single rides, but it’s a very low percentage that put just $2.25 on a magnetic stripe card. Most people are putting more on there, even low-income people. So we don’t think it’s going to be a barrier of entry because it is a one-time purchase.

And we think if people are purchasing one ride at a time, and there are some people who do that, saving a little bit more and spending twice the amount that they normally do one time will not be a barrier of entry for the transit they need to do their everyday business. So will it be an additional amount that they initially spend? Yes, it will. But, again, that’s a one-time purchase, and it’s comparable to what they’d normally be paying for  roundtrip ride on the CTA.

JG: You said the CTA will be handing out tens of thousands of fee-waived Ventra cards. That will be great for the first batch of Ventra customers, but is that something that you’ll be doing every year or so?

BS: Right now the plan is just to do it for the remainder of the year until Ventra is fully rolled out, which will be towards the end of the year. Again, a Ventra card is a permanent card, with the contactless technology. That’s probably the biggest change in the system. A lot of people are accustomed to disposable fare media. They’re accustomed to buying a card, which costs the CTA money to produce obviously, using it a couple of times and then throwing it away, leaving on the bus or the train. This will be something that you keep on you. And there’s a cost to producing that card, obviously. And that’s why there’s the initial $5 cost and, again, the value is completely refundable.

So that’s part of the education that we’re doing. This is not something that you pick up, put $2 on, and you have 20 of them lying in your drawer at home. That’s one of the things that we’re trying to shift away from. That’s a significant cost to us, a significant waste, that technology is outdated, and we’re seeing more and more failures on the system trying to process those cards. So, yeah, it will be a change in how people normally do business but it’s not different than how people are already conducting a lot of financial transactions. You know, people are using debit cards, people are using credit cards, people are using that kind of stuff on a daily basis for all types of other uses. We’re now bringing that to the transit realm.

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The various ways to pay under Ventra.

JG: So the other question, in terms of equity, is the prepaid debit card. It’s impossible to by a regular Ventra card that does not also have the potential to be a prepaid debit card. It’s going to have the Debit MasterCard logo on it. Now, when you register the card, you have the three different options for registering it. Whichever way you register it, are you going to be asked if you want to activate the card as a debit card?

BS: Well, when you say, “Will you be asked,” it depends what method you’re using. If you’re registering on the phone, the customer will have to ask to pursue the prepaid debit option. The person on the phone will not say, “Hey! Would you like to sign up for it?”

On the website there’s, on the bottom of the screen there’s a button that says, “Would you like to register for the prepaid debit?” I just saw a mock-up of this the other day. So it requires a proactive effort on the part of the customer. You won’t be going through a series of menus to register the transit side of the card and then have something pop up saying, “Would you also like the prepaid debit?” It’s completely and totally optional, and a separate process from registering the transit card. The transit registration is boom-boom-boom. Name, address, phone number for verification purposes, done. Obviously, to register for the prepaid debit you have to fill out some more stuff.

JG: What happens, say, if I’m a homeless guy? I buy my card and I walk into the CTA headquarters and I want to register my card. What do I have to do?

BS: That is a good question. We’ll get whatever verification information we can. This individual might have the address of a shelter, the address of a relative, or a social service agency. The purpose of the registration is so we are able to provide information to the customer should they want it about their account, particularly a lost or stolen card, and the restoration of the balance. I’d have to get back to you on specifically what we require, but it would have to be something beyond just a name, because otherwise we’d have no way of contacting the individual.

 

  • Anonymous

    I really think that if the groups complaining about how poor people won’t register would instead direct their efforts to helping said people register, the problem would largely be solved. Work with CTA, setup booths where you give people a card and have a laptop or ipad there to register on the spot.

  • Fred

    It seems like this is something that could (should) have been designed right into the Ventra vending machines. A simple touchscreen that allowed a user to enter their name/address/phone right on the spot at the time of purchase and walk away with a registered card.

    Alternately, it would be nice if they set up registration kiosks at certain, if not all, stations.

    Alternately again, they could provide CTA employees with mobile internet enabled iPads for the first several weeks to facilitate registrations immediately. You could even do this one a month, or once every several months. Make the second Tuesday of each month “Illinois Lottery Free Ventra Card Registration Day”. Corporate sponsor the program to pay for the iPads.

    Technology has come a long way. UTILIZE IT!

  • Anonymous

    There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about how this will shake out. My view is let’s wait and see and deal with the actual issue (if any).

  • As, I wrote, I feel better about the situation now that I know that the Tribune article was inaccurate and the CTA will not be actively pitching the debit card when people register their transit cars.

  • Joseph Musco

    Is there some way to read the CTA study in question? A link or PDF online?

  • Alfonso

    You make the assumption that these poor people can somehow raise $2.25 at both ends of their journey. For example, a poor person takes a round trip from home to a low-paying job. They only have enough money at home to pay $2.25. They go to their job, they get just enough money to pay $2.25 to get home. Where will they get money to pay to go back to work the next morning? Is someone giving them money at home?

    Most people get paid weekly or bi-weekly. A few jobs (like waiters or busboys who get tips) might get paid daily. But for most people, money doesn’t appear on a daily basis and it certainly doesn’t appear at both ends of their trip.

    There is no advantage to paying your fare on a daily basis if you only take in money once a week. And even for people who get paid daily, that daily payment has to pay for a ride home and a ride back to work the next day, so again there is no advantage to paying just $2,25 at a time.

  • Jin Nam

    Why doesn’t the CTA install software to allow customers to register the card at the time of purchase into the rather large Ventra machine? It’s 2013. Surely, a simple registration feature is within the realm of easy possibility.

  • I’ll see if I can track it down.

  • Anonymous

    What purpose does the registration process serve? It sounds tailor-made to extract extra money from the few (poor) people who either can’t or don’t know how to register.

  • It allows the CTA to send you info about your account and makes it possible for you to get a refund if your card is lost or stolen.

  • CL

    In that case, I can see why they want to incentivize registration, but I don’t think they should charge $5 that is just lost unless you register. They should just have the cards be free (and the $5 is automatically transit money) and if people want that benefit of registration, they can register if they want.

  • Joseph Musco

    I think the Near Field communication technology costs significantly more per card than the magnetic strip on the old fare cards. CTA has to charge some fee to recoup the extra NFC cost. For example the single use paper ticket has a .50c fee to recoup this cost.

    My only issue with CTA charging extra fees for NFC is generating additional revenue with the fees. If it costs CTA $1.80 to issue a plastic Ventra card, they shouldn’t be charging more than a $2 fee on top of the fare itself for the card, even if they are refunding it as a fare. What CTA calls an incentive to register is equally a penalty for not registering. That did not exist with the prior fare system.

  • Kelly Pierce

    As usual, government does not know how to market its services. It sounds like there has been little outreach to community organizations and social service providers to equip them to ensure that low income people have the means to register their cards and avoid needless fees. As someone suggested, it seems some of the advocates on this issue feel mor comfortable surfacing problems rather than advancing solutions.

  • Well, if there are problematic aspects of the CTA’s new fare system, it’s not the job of advocates to fix them. That’s the CTA’s responsibility.

  • Anonymous

    Somewhat related. DnaInfo this morning reported that the Divvy bike share will be integrated with the Ventra system. Wonder what that will look like and what benefits users could see from that.

    http://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20130805/west-loop/ctas-new-ventra-card-arrives-monday-for-some

  • Chicago South

    John, I can’t believe you wrote that. The whole purpose of this website is to advocate for changing public and private transportation — to fix it. Clearly, you believe it’s our responsibility to fix transportation systems. We can’t just stop when we’re halfway there. We have to go all the way, even if it means we have to critique the systems for which we’re advocating.

  • Anonymous

    “CTA has to charge some fee to recoup the extra NFC cost.”

    No, actually, they don’t. That’s crazy thinking.

    The CTA needs to learn something about economics. Costs like that are an inevitable cost of doing business; you cover them by raising fares overall. You don’t pass them on to your customers unless you’re a monopoly who hates your customers (so, for instance, we see this sort of nickel-and-diming with utility companies, cellphone companies, etc., but we don’t see it with companies in competitive industries).

    Now, if you want to create an incentive for people to not throw the cards away, create a deposit (of, say, $2) — and allow the deposit to be reclaimed by ANYONE who turns in an old card. Like with bottles.

    Registered cards could prevent other people from claiming the deposit.

  • When Will They Learn

    You are all missing one big point,….the registration process requires you to divuldge your address,primary phone number ,email address. You WILL be tracked just to ride the CTA. I’d rather buy a car.

  • When Will They Learn

    oh,and birthday too. Nosey little creeps ain’t they.

  • Fred

    Yeah. So?

    Google tracks every single search term you put in and every link you click on. Hell, I’d bet this site logs what IP address you are browsing from along with every page you have read. Better get off the internet!

    Does the metal roof of a car work as a foil hat, or do you still wear one while driving, just in case?

  • Lynn Stevens

    Unfortunately, CTA has repeatedly been “inaccurate:” “starting in a
    couple of weeks through the end of the year, we’ll be
    giving away tens of thousands of free Ventra cards,” something they
    previously said would happen all summer. Five weeks since this article
    and it still hasn’t happened.

  • They did announce that you can get a free Ventra card online, by phone or at the CTA HQ through the end of the year. Same issues as registering the card for very low-income folks, but it’s a step in the right direction.

  • Eleanor Devereaux

    VENTRA SCAM: They tell you they will give you your $5 back as pre paid debit, but it’s a lie to get you to sign up for a prepaid card, thus giving CTA a BONUS for accounts opened through metabank.

  • Nope, they tell you they will give your $5 back as a CTA fare credit, which they do.

  • Anna Wilson

    Where and when can I get a free card I work in social services no one has offered is free cards to give to our zero income participants

  • Caitlin Eleanor Field

    Yeah, I just purchased my card yesterday, registered it a few hours later when I got home, and immediately had the $5 refunded…which I then used that fare today.

  • bus fare insane

    Why would you assume because i use my ventra card and not use my debit card that i am poor.i am a full time student and hold a job and pay rate rent .i choose not to use my debit card because i don’t trust cta.chicago bus fare is insane.in the next 5 years the the headlines may read cta has stolen customer bank info.NEVER GIVE ANYONE. YOUR BANK INFORMATION

  • g i joe

    it doesnt require a conspiracy theorist to realize all this tracking is messed up. Also, are you going to justify everyones bad action by saying someone else does worse? get real, stop bending over for authority

  • andrea30

    offers a thorough selection of plastic card technologies as well as in-house card production services to suit your individual needs. one card system software

  • Lily Toews

    how do i delete a a card off of my account and transfer the funds to a different card?

  • Anti-Ventra

    To Lily, that card is there FOREVER, to John who is either a CTA exec or someone drinking the Kool-aid off the bus, this system is not beneficial. It has little to do with the poor and more to do with the reasonableness. Apparently you have not been the cardholder who has added money onto a card only to get on the bus and have it not read and then you are at the mercy of the driver who, in the instance that I observed, put the woman off the bus as she tried to show her Ventra account on her phone reflecting that the card had money on it.

    Have you had the auto load feature on your card and for some reason try to get on the bus and have the driver tell you that the card says “insufficient fare”? You step off the bus call the Ventra line because you are no where near a station to check what is going on and by the way, why should you since you have the auto load feature on? The Ventra representative tells you that for some reason these things happen from time to time.

    Have you had your card lost or stolen, called and in addition to paying the non refundable $5 fee, you have to purchase another card while waiting for the replacement, and when you it arrives, you now have two cards…..

    Apparently for you the Ventra world has been kind, sweet and helpful. To the rest of the universe it has been one issue after another. Drink the cup of humanity no conformity and corporation.

  • DanT

    I just arrived in town with cash and went to Walgreens to buy a bus pass. They sold me a Ventra card that is also a pre-paid debit card. The idea sounded great, so I loaded the card with $300 in cash. I then registered both the transit card and the pre-paid debit card at another site. The debit card does not work, and I am told by Ventra that the cash can only be used for transit. I only ride the bus on rare occasions, so this is turning into a real nightmare. I could be living on the streets because Ventra will not allow me to use the cash on my card to pay my hotel bill. The managers at various Walgreens have no product knowledge, and can answer no questions. The people at Ventra told me to “ride the bus”. This is an embarrassment to the city of Chicago, and this is the issue that will hurt the poor people (as I am). How many people will load cash onto this card to pay their utility bills and then not be allowed to pay them?

  • From what you describe it seems that you loaded the $300 cash onto the transit account and not the debit account. I believe that Walgreens staff have to ensure they set the Ventra card reader at their point-of-sale counter to load the cash onto whichever account you instruct.

    Additionally, I believe that money can be transferred from debit to transit but not from transit to debit.

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